Joint Security Area was something of a miracle for director Park Chan-wook. Nowadays, the world of cinema knows him for Oldboy and Thirst, but in the year 2000, he was a part-time movie critic with nothing but two financial and critical failures to his name. The release of Joint Security Area helped to usher in not only Park Chan-wook's career, but an entirely new era in South Korean film-making through it's ambition and craft.
As the movie opens, you can feel the inexperience in it. Basic compositions, regular shot/reverse shot setups for the early (English) conversations that help setup the plot of the rest of the film, and some poor performances from English speaking actors that serve as a lot of exposition dump. Some of this isn't really Park's fault, since film was only just now undergoing a renaissance in his country, he didn't exactly have anyone to really mentor him. But underneath the lack of polish, you can see his style starting to take shape, and you can see exactly what about this movie captured a nation. He takes what could have easily been some kind of terse political thriller, and instead turns it into a tragic, personal film driven not by political agendas, but by character and mystery. Before the first half-hour is up, the audience is already becoming aware that something more is going on than the official explanations of each country let on. Physical evidence doesn't match up to testimony, and soon enough a he said/she said border skirmish turns into a genuine mystery that threatens to escalate to a full-on war.
The futility and frustrating pointlessness of these border-related issues though, is really what's on display here. Through flashbacks, we learn that these murdered North Korean border guards actually, through strange coincidence, were friends with the South Korean border guards. There are many scenes of them all calling each other "brother!" happily, exchanging stories about their country, playing games, and waxing philosophical about "reuniting the peninsula". These moments however always have an underlying tension, and are punctuated with stark reminders that though these people have made friends, their countries have not. Both then and now, the political underpinning of this story is very relevant as we watch North and South Korea bicker back and forth, and it's easy to paint the population of each country with a large brush. But here, the message is that these are in fact, real people. These are people with lives, with loves, with histories, with desires and wants and needs, just like all of us. The soldiers in this story have more in common with schoolchildren, smiles tugging at their lips as they all share a happy secret that they know deep down could destroy them. There's a deeply tragic element in this film that the audience becomes more aware of as time goes on. Park explores these concepts much more deeply in his Vengeance trilogy (of which Oldboy is obviously the most famous), but still the pain of what happens to this group of friends gets clearer and clearer as the flashbacks get closer and closer to present day, and we begin to understand that what appeared at first to be political murders are actually the terrible, tragic ending of a friendship that could never last. The tragedy itself isn't shown until almost the very end, but we can piece together what happened far before that, and when it is finally shown, the tensions escalate sky high with any wrong move potentially setting the stage for what we as the audience already unfortunately know is the outcome.
This to me is where this director shines. There is a feeling of inevitability to these deaths, that there was no other way that this story could have ended. Yet the scenes of the soldiers growing close to each other, learning about each other, and putting their political affiliations aside are so incredibly satisfying. We want to imagine a world where people can connect to each other like that, without their politics getting in the way. But we live in reality, and the North/South Korean relationship serves as the most extreme political difference any of us could imagine, and the consequences of these differing ideologies attempting to come together can only ever be pain. There is no evildoer in this story, there is no primary antagonistic figure that our protagonists must face. The evil that rears it's head here takes the form of the things that we are forced to do to our fellow man due to forces outside of our control.